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Bill Self has never had a team quite like this one. Yes, this Kansas team is loaded with top-tier talent, including two preseason All-Americas, one of the best freshmen in the country and twins who are demons on the offensive glass. But Self has had loaded teams before. Yes, this team is deep, with eight players averaging more than 15 minutes a game; it sometimes feels as if spectacular players just keep coming off the bench, one after another, like circus clowns piling out of a taxi. But Self has had deep teams before.
No, this team's unique talent is its constant ability to baffle Bill Self.
Take this moment: There are 17 minutes to go in the Kansas--Kansas State game on March 3. The score is tied, and there's a shell-shocked feeling at Allen Fieldhouse. This Kansas State team is gritty and skilled and ranked No. 5 in the country, and the Wildcats players and coaches and fans desperately want to knock off big brother Kansas, the basketball school that has dominated the state for, well, forever. Kansas State has rallied from 13 points down and now seems to be ready to take away this game.
Self calls timeout. He looks at his players. What does he see? Well, he sees something close to the ideal college basketball team. He sees Sherron Collins, a tough-as-calculus senior point guard. He sees Cole Aldrich, a smart big man who can dominate on both ends of the floor. He sees Xavier Henry, a sweet-shooting freshman. He sees the Morris twins, Marcus (6'8") and Markieff (6'9"). He sees the fastest guy on the floor, Tyshawn Taylor, and 24-year-old redshirt junior Brady Morningstar....
What else does he see? "I know we're tough," Self says. "I know we're talented. But...."
But ... Self cannot find the words to follow the conjunction. There is just something puzzling about this team. From the outside, it has all looked so uncomplicated. Kansas was ranked the preseason No. 1. The Jayhawks won their first 14 games before losing at Tennessee. They then won their first 13 Big 12 games and clinched at least a share of their sixth-straight conference title two weeks before the regular season ended.
On the inside, though, life has been confusing. Something has been missing. Self calls the season both "the least enjoyable ride of my coaching life" and "in some ways, as much fun as I've ever had coaching." He has marveled at his players' ability to play well in big moments and raged at what he has perceived as a lack of a killer instinct.
"Guys," Self said in the huddle during that Kansas State timeout, "you have to enjoy this. This is when you find out how tough you are."
For the next 13 minutes the Kansas players employ some kind of defensive death trap. It's staggering to watch. Kansas State's players make only two of 15 shots from the field, turn the ball over four times, find it hard to breathe. Collins, who had looked helpless for 25 minutes, scores seven straight points. Allen Fieldhouse detonates in sound. When the run ends, the Jayhawks lead by 18 points. They go on to an 82--65 victory.
"I don't need to tell you this," Self says after the game, "but when we're good, yeah, we're awfully good."